Over one million tribals and forest dwellers are currently living in the fear of eviction, as their claims to the lands, that they have been living on for generations, were rejected under the Forest Rights Act.
As the apex court picked up this issue following a petition, Modi government’s lawyers failed to even turn up for the hearings. The Centre, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change – the respondents in the case – have kept silent in the last four hearings.
In an order uploaded on its website on Tuesday evening, the apex court specifically issued directions to the chief secretaries of each of the 17 states to ensure that in all cases where land ownership claims have been rejected, eviction is to be carried out on or before the next date of hearing which is July 12, 2019.
Speaking to Newsclick, Gayatri Singh, senior advocate, said, “In many areas, claims have been filed, which have been pending for several years. And now, they are calling them encroachers. A large number of tribals have already been evicted in most cases. Tribals do not have the necessary documents or the awareness to deal with the complicated processes of the state.”
The three-judge bench comprising Justices Arun Mishra, Navin Sinha and Indira Banerjee asked the governments to submit a report on the matter in the Supreme Court. The court also declared, “In case the eviction is not carried out, as aforesaid, the matter would be viewed seriously by this court.” The court has also asked the states to explain why there were no evictions despite rejection of the claims.
The claims of nearly 11,27,446 tribal and other forest-dwelling households have been rejected on various grounds, including absence of proof that the land was in their possession for at least three generations. These numbers are only a tip of the iceberg, and could surge as more states have been asked to submit their data. The court has also directed the Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India to submit a satellite image-based report on the encroachments removed.
The decision of the court has prompted protests by the tribal rights groups and activists, with the Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch (AARM) gearing up to file a review petition in the case. Speaking to Newsclick, Jitendra Choudhary of the AARM said, “Forest dwellers, more particularly Adivasis, are at the receiving end of this embargo which has been put on the lives of the tribals. The risk in which their lives and livelihood is being put at today can be primarily attributed to the Modi government’s apathy towards the tribals. Had the government represented the tribals with sincerity, the verdict of the court may have been different. The appearance of the Tribal Affairs Ministry was primarily for a namesake, and not to yield any substantial benefit to the case of the Adivasis.”
He added, “This is just the beginning of the process of trampling the tribal rights. The verdict is likely to have far bigger implications for the rest of the nation.”
Archana Prasad, professor, Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, “If the BJP government is concerned about the tribals, the need of the hour is to bring in an ordinance or to file a review petition in the decision. The government is determined not just to benefit the corporates, but also the tourism industry which is why the forest vs. tiger debate is being rekindled.”
On February 4, leaders from the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, along with two platforms of Adivasis and forest dwellers’ movements, had sent a letter to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs about its failure to defend the historic and landmark Forest Rights Act in the Supreme Court. Yet, the ministry seems to be unmoved.
Read more: Modi Govt’s Lawyers Didn’t Defend Forest Rights Act in Supreme Court